In western Alaska on the edge of the Bering Sea, the Yup’ik village of Newtok has slowly disappeared over the past few decades, the victim of climate change and rising temperatures that have eroded the frozen tundra under its community.
“Rising sea levels, melting permafrost, sinking ground and bigger storms have eaten away at the land where homes used to be, so we have had to move to higher ground,” said Ramman Carl, the tribal administrator.
Since 2007, the Ninglick River — which flows into the Bering Sea beside the community — has eroded more than 500 feet toward the village, with less than 80 feet remaining between the closest dwelling and the water.
The new home to more than 300 Newtok residents is on nearby Nelson Island in the village of Mertarvik, which is 100 feet above sea level. Fewer than 90 people remain in Newtok. But they, too, plan to move, Carl said.
“There are many other coastal towns in Alaska that will have to move to higher ground,” he said. “If they are on the ocean shore, they are in trouble. When winter storms hit now, icebergs go into some villages. It’s dangerous.”
Far to the south in Louisiana, the community of Isle de Jean Charles has all but disappeared into the Gulf of Mexico due to coastal erosion and sea level rise. The island, home mostly to descendants of Native Americans, once encompassed 22,000 acres.
Today, only 320 acres remain and the land where islanders once hunted, trapped, grazed animals and raised crops is now under water. Thanks to a $48-million federal Community Development Block Grant, residents are now moving to New Isle, a planned community 40 miles to the north of Isle de Jean Charles.
There are similar stories from the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii, where homes have collapsed as sandy dunes erode. Research conducted by the University of Hawaii’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology predicts sea level rise of at least one foot by the year 2050 and four feet by the end of the century. This would endanger two-thirds of the roadways on Oahu and displace up to $19 billion in critical infrastructure.
For the past 2,000 years, scientists say the level of the earth’s ocean was relatively stable. However, governments around the globe are now facing the near certainty of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, which is raising sea levels, creating stronger storms and more flooding, and could drive millions of people from their homes.
In New Jersey, Rutgers professor and climate scientist Robert Kopp is leading a multi-university team studying the coastal climate crisis that includes civil engineers, urban planners, economists, emergency management specialists, environmental anthropologists and social scientists.
With the aid of a $20-million grant from the National Science Foundation, the group is partnering with communities to develop adaptation plans that protect coastal areas increasingly threatened by extreme weather. It’s also looking into how people respond to rising waters and the behavior of housing markets, mortgages and insurance companies, as well as the effects on municipal budgets.
“We are dealing with complex and rapidly changing coastal environments and hazards,” said Kopp, who noted that warming waters are also expanding — a scientific phenomenon known as volumetric increase.
“Rutgers and most of the team working on this project sit within the dense urban mega-region that stretches from New York City, through New Jersey, to Philadelphia,” said Kopp, who is also director of the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences and professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.
“We have to understand the dynamics of how humans and the coastline interact in such complex, urbanized regions so that we can thrive despite rising sea levels and intensifying heat and rainfall and take advantage of new opportunities like offshore wind. The lessons we learn here should have application to urban megalopolises around the world.”
While Kopp said government agencies as well as individuals need to plan for sea levels that will rise 18 inches by 2050 and as much as six feet by the end of the century with unchecked emissions growth, the impacts of global warming and sea rise are being felt now.
“You don’t have to look into the future to see the damage,” he said. “I’ll use New Jersey as an example because that’s where I am. If you look on the Jersey shore, our tidal flooding that used to happen every couple of years in the 1950s is now several days each year, a 10-fold increase. Similarly, Atlantic City and Norfolk, Va., are feeling the impact of flooding on a regular basis.”
He explained human-caused sea level changes since 1900 were responsible for about 10 percent of the damages caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which wreaked nearly $70 billion in havoc and killed 233 people in eight countries from the Caribbean to Canada.
What coastal communities can do to adapt depends on local circumstances. “I would argue there is no cookie-cutter solution,” Kopp observed. “You have to have community-level discussions and engage people to let them know what the future may look like. Depending on the setting, accommodation could mean hardening the infrastructure and elevating buildings and erecting sea walls.
“But it also includes setting aside land for the water, like parkland in areas of tidal flooding. For some communities, that means relocation. For them, you need a long-term plan. But I wouldn’t want to jump to relocation right away. I’d want to determine how we’d know when we are on a trajectory where we need to transition to that strategy.”
In Maine, Susie Arnold is a marine scientist with the Island Institute, a community development organization founded nearly 30 years ago. She agrees with Kopp that there is no single formula for coastal towns and cities that are dealing with sea rise.
The first step that Maine communities are doing is “understanding what their vulnerabilities are and figuring out what high-priority actions need to be taken,” she said, noting that Maine has 3,478 miles of tidal shoreline and thousands of islands. “It really is a community-by-community effort in that each one has a top priority or top area of vulnerability.
“We have southern Maine towns that have very low-lying sandy beaches that are being lost. The wave action is pounding on those communities that are developed right up to that sandy coastline. Conversely, you have the Down East Coast, which is much rockier and much more elevated in many cases, so you are seeing different stresses there.”
Due to the variations in coastal elevations, the danger of rising sea levels is uneven. “We have hundreds of peninsulas with low lying areas that are heavily affected. But other spots are higher. So, it really does depend where you are located,” Arnold observed.
She lives in the coastal city of Bath, which has a population of around 9,000 and is located on the mouth of the Kennebec River. It is popular with tourists, many attracted by its 19th Century architecture. The city’s downtown is only several feet above sea level.
She said Bath has been “keeping an eye on this issue for nearly a decade” and worked with a Design and Resilience Team (DART) from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to help it deal with rising seas.
The DART report suggested not only traditional hardening techniques like sea walls and stone and earth revetments, as well as “green infrastructures” like beefing up sand dunes, planting trees and other vegetation that can absorb water.
Rising sea levels have already taken their toll on Bath. According to the First Street Foundation, a national group focused on flood risk, Bath has been hit by the highest property value losses in Maine caused by rising sea levels between 2005 and 2017.
In all, it said nearly $70 million was lost in Maine among $403 million across the region during that period. Roughly 17 percent of Bath properties were at risk in 2019 and that number could increase another 9 percent in 30 years, with more than 8,000 residential properties at risk statewide. Nationally, the study https:// firststreet.org/press/rising-seas-erode-15-8-billion-in-home-value-from-maine-to-mississippi/ said rising seas have eroded $15.8 billion in home values from Maine to Mississippi.
Though Arnold’s home is on a bluff well above the water line, she said she has friends who have been affected because the road to their homes floods. She said scores of roads on the Maine coast will need to be raised. “That is common because of the nature of Maine. We have hundreds of dwellings on peninsulas with only one way in and out. When those roads flood, it is a bottleneck for emergency services.”
She also acknowledged that the sea will ultimately take back some areas, but meanwhile, more effort needs to be put into cutting greenhouse gas emissions to lessen future sea level increases.
“We know that there is not enough money in the world to adapt to some of the worst-case scenarios,” she said. “Humankind has never dealt with something of this scale in the past. The solutions aren’t entirely clear and they haven’t been evaluated for success over the long term.
“Adapting will be expensive, but we do know that it is much more cost effective to fix a piece of infrastructure before a disaster strikes. Fortunately, we have an influx of federal money coming in for planning to take care of some of the real obvious problems before a superstorm hits and causes a lot of damage.”
According to Madeleine Hill, 2022 president of the Maine Association of REALTORS® and designated broker at Roxanne York Real Estate on Bailey Island, Maine, “The Maine Association of REALTORS® supports decision-making efforts and solutions that employ sound science, smart growth and balance when analyzing climate change and sea level rise and its impact on private property rights. Because of Maine’s strong home rule ordinance powers afforded to our cities and towns, this emerging issue will require the cooperative efforts of local, county and state governments for study, interventions and solutions.”
In Louisiana, Camille Manning-Broome is president of the Baton Rouge-based Center for Planning Excellence. According to a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report, the Gulf of Mexico could rise two feet by 2060.
She said her home state has lost more than 2,000 square miles of land due to sea rise, subsidence and the channeling of the Mississippi River, a process that began in the late 1920s and has greatly diminished the flow of new sediments that kept delta lands from shrinking.
In addition, the region has been battered by major storms, including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, both of which hit in 2005. Following those disasters, she said the state developed a coastal protection and restoration authority to start rebuilding land and protecting communities on the coast.
Manning-Broome explains, “We are a state with a lot of vulnerabilities and there is no single federal program that supports climate adaptation. A lot of climate adaptive funding is post disaster and those are very antiquated programs.
“We need alignment with federal agencies to use our resources more creatively. Fortunately, the government has recently come up with some additional funding like the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program from Federal Emergency Management Administration and that’s a good start.” https://www.fema.gov/grants/mitigation/ building-resilient-infrastructure-communities
Some areas will ultimately be returned to the wild. “We’ll need to design communities around adaptations, in some cases building nature-based solutions,” she said. “It means changing how we think about our infrastructure and the built environment. But there is never going to be enough resources, empathy or political will to buy out entire regions.”
She cited Japan, the Netherlands and Denmark as countries with cultures more amenable to decisions that produce land-use changes and said her agency has a best practices manual devoted to adaptation. “There are many good examples from around the world.”
“But in this country, some decisions may be more market-based,” she said. “Insurance companies and their actuaries are taking a harder view of risks related to sea level rise and climate change. When loan-makers at banks do the same, I think we’re going to be looking at some big shifts.”